This year’s Ojai at Berkeley was entitled “Courageous Women, Transcendent Visions.” Ojai at Berkeley 2016 was the latest in a six years and running collaboration between Cal Performances and Ojai Music Festival, a Southern California classical music festival run by American theater director Peter Sellars. To anyone who attended the dazzling performance of Egyptian singer Dina El Wedidi on June 17 at Zellerbach Hall, there was no question as to why she was included in this particular program.
Wedidi performed at Cal once before, in February 2015, as part of The Nile Project, a collaboration between musicians from the 11 East African countries that the 6,670 kilometer Nile river passes through. This visit, she sang and played guitar and tambourine with her own ensemble, which fused traditional Egyptian instruments such as accordion and Oud with Western ones. They performed 10 songs, eight of which were her own compositions. These compositions were filled with intricately ornamented vocal riffs and tricky changes in time signature, often multiple times in the same song. The other two pieces were covers of traditional Egyptian songs, specially arranged to bring out the textures of both the old and new instruments. Given all this, it was surprising to hear that Wedidi had only become a professional musician recently.
“I was working as an actress in the theater telling stories, and then I went to work as a Turkish translator in the embassy at Cairo,” Wedidi explained in an interview after the performance. “I started to concentrate on singing only in the past five years.”
Winning an award to study under Brazilian music icon Gilberto Gil for a year jump-started her international performing career, and she eventually formed her own ensemble with fellow musicians in the Cairo music scene. This was the ensemble she brought to Berkeley.
But three members of Wedidi’s band had visa problems and couldn’t make it to the U.S. They had to be replaced with only three days’ notice. Her songs feature extensive improvisational sections, sometimes with meter and other times without it. One voice twists and turns in the mode of the song while another accompanies it a few seconds behind. Then the lead role is passed on to another instrument. None of this fazed the two guitarists and the keyboardist who flew in from Boston to fill in — the audience would have been none the wiser had she not made special note of their feat.
Two of the songs Wedidi performed were off her debut album, Turning Back. She introduced “Turning Back (Tedawar W’tergaa)” as “a song about when you find your love and for some reason you leave each other and then you feel a cycle of fears and keep turning back.” She giggled that her English wasn’t really sufficient to articulate the feeling, but the ballad she went on to sing, over harmonics on the guitar and plucks on the string bass, more than conveyed it.
At no point did the evening drag: The group’s sound was always lively and the musicians went to extra lengths to bring variety to each song. A couple of songs kicked off with virtuosic saxophone and accordion solos while another began with an extended drum exchange between two traditional Egyptian percussion instruments (one of which sounded like a cross between a steel drum and a South Indian classical drum called the mridangam). Wedidi taught the audience a line that she had them sing back to her as part of a call and response during one song and she rallied the crowd to clap with her during another. The songs’ tempos contrasted nicely, and in some of them, the tempo sped up all the way until a frenzied finish that Wedidi executed with flourish. She recruited the keyboardist to sing two duets with her, and his deep voice beautifully contrasted with hers.
Dina El Wedidi and her bandmates delivered an exemplary performance that showcased the talents of each and every musician on stage. It had all of the musical innovation and sophistication of a serious musical event with none of the stuffiness and lack of spontaneity that often comes with it. Wedidi’s elaborate compositions, rich arrangements, bell-clear voice and self-assured stage presence were truly transcendent.
Contact Parthiv Mohan at [email protected].